An unusual funeral took place at the Jewish cemetery in Ashkelon in early July. The crowd of gathered mourners included not only local Jewish Israelis, but a great many Bedouins, as well. They had come to pay their final respects to Michael Ben Zikri (45).
Ben Zikri had become a hero to the Muslim Bedouin al-Karem family from the village of Hura in the Negev region. The father of three had not hesitated to save three Bedouin children aged 14, 10 and 7, along with their aunt, from drowning in a man-made lake south of Ashkelon two days earlier. But following his act of valor, Ben Zikri had no strength left to return to shore himself, and tragically drown.
“It happened in a lake south of Ashkelon,” Jamal al-Karem, the father of the three children, told Israel Today tearfully. “I don’t know how to thank his family.” There is now an unbreakable bond between him and Ben Zikri’s family, the grateful father stressed to us.
Jamal and other Bedouin residents of Hura have visited the Jewish Ben Zikri family several times to give comfort. “I’ve always had contact with Jews,” Jamal explained. “I work in Ashkelon in construction, and many of my work colleagues are Jews. I respect them very much. I visit them and they visit me. There is no racism between us and the Jews.”
We asked Jamal if he could expound on what it’s like to live as a Bedouin Arab Muslim in the Jewish state. The mainstream media typically paints a picture of discrimination, oppression and even apartheid. But Jamal told us:
“My life is very good. I have all rights. There is no difference between us. Me and my Jewish coworkers earn the same living. I love life here. And I’m Israeli! What hurts the Jewish people hurts me, too.”
Arabs honor a Jewish hero
Many people from the village of Hura attended Ben Zikri’s funeral, and a group of young Bedouins paid homage by lining the path to his gravesite while holding signs expressions their appreciation. In their village, there are now calls to name a street after the Jewish Israeli.
“Michael is considered a hero in our village, the funeral in Ashkelon was a powerful demonstration of the coexistence between Jews and Bedouins,” said Jamal.
Indeed, Arabs across Israel saw the selfless act as an example of the coexistence that truly characterizes most Arab-Jewish relations in the country. Ayman Odeh, one of the most prominent Arab politicians in Israel, stated that he would ensure that “Ben Zikri’s noble deed has a positive impact on the next generation of Jews and Arabs.”
Ben Zikri’s moving story became known throughout the Arab world after the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs published it on their Arabic and Persian-language social media accounts. An Iraqi commented, “There is no difference between people.”
Israel President Reuven Rivlin honored Michael posthumously with the nation’s top civilian medals, and invited both the Ben Zikri and al-Karem families to Jerusalem for the ceremony.